One of the more consistent themes of my life, going back to those sudden, sharp changes of adolescence, is the feeling of being very much “with it”, mature, and having it together on the inside–a real grownup in every way–yet, almost utterly incapable to project this same sense of personality outward to others. The struggle has included endless questions about whether or not I suffer from a mental illness, and for a time a little soul-searching around my sexual identity when attracting a girlfriend seemed to be nigh impossible. A common way of temporarily resolving the questions is to simply accept that I didn’t have all of the social practice most of my peers did–having missed out on a lot of the socialization activities due to my own fear or my parents’ unwillingness to allow me to participate.
This might be a reasonable explanation for why things don’t work as well as I would hope them to, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of practical solutions when the goal is to marry my social persona better with my inner self encountered during private moments of solitude or when relaxing comfortably with family. There were at one time those hackneyed solutions that so many young men pursue–seeking out mentors or wingmen, slightly older “bros” to help them score chicks and talk tough when at work and trying to get ahead. That is all fine and good if your primary goal is to not spend much time examining who you really are, and you are mostly comfortable with being who or what you appear to be around others–in other words, the superficial life is good enough.
The rough years have mostly passed. The sheer frustration of seeing people not correctly connect with the me on the inside that I know and love and I believe could be known and loved by many others–this has mostly departed. I’ve come to accept that I have to take small steps and have small successes. A few moments at a function here and there, where the silence isn’t too deafening and my words don’t spill out too crazily–that’s the best I can hope for right now.
The thing that I have zero’ed in on–and I am trying to get my brain completely around it and in it–is that state of observing myself speak while observing the other person observing me speak. It’s a kind of disconnected behavior where ideally, yes, I should be living more in the moment instead of trying to analyze it, but at the same time when I’ve permitted myself to just completely blab things out unfiltered and unchecked while not paying the least bit of attention to how the other person is reacting–those moments are ones where I often end up making the wrong kinds of friends and scaring off the right ones.
What’s more, there seems to be an urgent force pushing me to pay attention to how another person is perceiving me, and to measure my words accordingly. The problem with this force, as it has been since around the age of 12, is that it can sprial out of control until each person observing me speak becomes this endlessly scrutinizing, hypercritical consciousness, bent on methodically judging every single tic, flaw, movement, word, inflection, etc. that is a part of my inner and outer being. If I am speaking to a group of people, then this overinflated consciousness is just compounded by the number of pairs of eyes upon me, until the weight of it all is just too much to bear.
This sounds positively crazy, or childish–or just plain ridiculous. But, the sense of this taking place is there, no matter how hard I try to either ignore it or push past it. Of course, the reason that people all seem to be scowling more and more intently and fiercely is due to the fact that I am now flubbing my words or speaking in incomplete sentences. My vocabulary has been reduced due to the stress I am putting upon myself, and I, too, am scowling because I am descending into a fight-or-flight state. The crowd before me suddenly seems to be full of animosity–some of the pairs of eyes seem to be sending me death stares like they fully wish I would be utterly eradicated from their awareness. Yes, it isn’t just a matter of feeling a little squeamish or sensing that my visage and voice may be making others a little uncomfortable, my mind is now full of these thoughts, right or wrong, that most of the people in the audience, be they one or many, are actively wishing I didn’t exist at all–not just that I would sit down and shut up or stop showing up at their meetings, but that the faces scowling at me are fronting these mad desires to see my very existence blotted out from this universe, this reality, altogether–sort of like in the movie Inception when all of the people in the person’s dream realize that there are intruders in that person’s consciousness.
Later, when I do have a chance to talk to at least some of the people who were presenting such unchecked vitriol in my imagination, they seem to be agreeable, friendly or at least utterly indifferent and were likely deep in their own thoughts and problems while they seemed to be staring so intently at me.
I’ve done myself a disservice by combining the state of mind that occurs when speaking to one or many into one single problematic thing, but it’s not quite that simple, either. The feeling that arises while talking to a single individual can be very different, and sometimes can bring forth a more acute sense of how lacking my social personality really is. This might be due to the strong personality of the other person, or simply because I had gone a while without meeting new people and I suddenly have a stranger’s full attention.
I could talk about bigness of self or self presence in these situations, and how I’ve learned to muster a sizeable “me” and voice to bring to the table so that the person doesn’t perceive me to be a lightweight, pushover or simply an odd bird that they can’t figure out. Over time, this has become more natural, as I’ve permitted myself to become this artificial sort of self simply to avoid being mowed over or dismissed out of hand. This remains an artificial-feeling activity, though, as I don’t necessarily feel the need to muster any additional self presence or attitude when I am alone with my family. Of course, I probably had some of this called forth when I was first dating my wife, and over time, have grown comfortable with just being me when I am alone with her and now with L as well, and for all I know, some or much of my “just being me” is an attitude or way of being that she finds off-putting but doesn’t want to say anything about it.
I should restate the goal of why I am bothering to ruminate on any of this, for it becomes easy to be lost in a general reverie of navel-gazing if I’m not careful. My goal is to be well-liked and known by more people. Maybe not everyone I meet, but certainly more than just the occasional friend here or there. However, in stating that goal, I want to be well-liked and known by more people while still being someone I can say with confidence is genuinely me. In other words, I don’t want to “do whatever it takes” to win friends and impress people, because that’s a waste of time.
Naturally, one of the big pieces to winning friends and impressing people is to take a great interest in what others are doing. While I like to think I am a good listener, and have enough of an appetite for a variety of different subjects that I am good at listening at length to the things that other people do, I may not be as honest with myself about this as I should be. I may very well have this as an area that needs great work, and am missing it just because I assume I was a great listener all of those years I was so quiet. I could be much more self absorbed and full of thoughts about my own pressing things to do, that I am effectively saying with so much body language I am not really that interested in what you have to say about yourself–no matter how much I am smiling, nodding and saying “tell me more.”
I do think that I have some qualities of self that can be described as being more of a listener and a person eager to serve rather than boss others around. However, these have never been examined or developed in any sort of extensive way to make me use these qualities effectively as an adult. First, I have to admit that I am not the greatest listener and most humble human there ever was, nor even the best I could be at these things. Just because I might have some raw traits that seem to be more prevalent in me than in others, doesn’t mean I am ever to be exulted and held in high regard for such things. So, I must learn to accept the ways in which I could be a better listener and have more of a servant’s heart in humility and in love, and not resist someone who is telling me directly or indirectly that I could be doing better at these things. Even Presidents and other leaders (maybe even moreso) have plenty of people telling them how they could be better leaders–people who are perhaps vastly unqualified to ever be leaders themselves. Good leaders know when to incorporate some of the constructive criticism to get better, and bad leaders won’t listen to anyone outside of a select few advisors.
Probably one of the more important things to remember is that I still need to practice listening and being a servant.
Also, I have to learn to do these things as an adult. As such, I need to be “sharp as a serpent” and recognize when someone is taking advantage of my kindness. For example, people at UW came to see me as a bit of a pushover and simpleton, I think. They were all too happy to relegate me to roles like sorting the mail and cleaning up after meetings because they saw themselves as being too important for such things. I truly feel that after a while there, I was more taken advantage of than seen as someone with solid potential to be a servant leader. Humility as an adult means having both eyes wide open to the fact that there are plenty of enterprsing sorts of people who would be happy to leave you with the dirty work all the time while they go out and play.
There should be a clear understanding that this is not a quest for perfection. This is a quest to have at some point in my life at least a decade go by where life feels somewhat normal. Where I feel normal–I’m adjusted, I live in a nice college town or some other equally pleasant community and am surrounded by people I can call my friends. Real friends. Friends who will come over for dinner, a beer, the game, etc. I stop feeling like the outsider and the one who is simply passing through. I may never be the coolest kid or the most loved and adored or the most powerful, but I at least want to be normal and happy for awhile. If this means living in the Midwest again, I am all for it. Just living by the ocean, or living in a cool city isn’t enough.